Bishops attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the opening of a synod, a meeting of bishops, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Image Credit: AP

Vatican City: Delegates from around the globe are converging on Vatican City for the opening of an unprecedented assembly seen as part of the broadest consultation on the direction of the faith since the 1960s.

For the first time, lay people with voting rights - including women - will be participating in a synod, the church's leading consultative body and a forum previously reserved for senior clerics. This assembly will be followed by a second one in October 2024, after which a set of recommendations are expected to go to the pope.

Pope Francis officially announced the "Synod on Synodality" in 2021, asking regional churches to produce topics to ponder. The synod will also consider more "concrete steps" to prevent clerical sexual abuse and offer justice to victims, though victims' rights groups have denounced the synod for not taking the issue seriously enough.

The extent to which the synod is an exercise in Catholic theology or an instrument for liberal reform is being hotly contested. The Vatican is downplaying expectation of rapid change, something liberal Catholics have hoped for. But conservatives - including five cardinals who openly published an extraordinary challenge to the pope on the eve of the synod - are warning that it could provoke violations of established doctrine. They have called on Francis to reaffirm church teaching that homosexuality is "contrary" to God's law and to definitively state that the priesthood is a sacrament "exclusive" to "baptized males."

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Here's everything you need to know about the upcoming gathering.

Why is the synod important?

Vatican watchers see the synod as a long-delayed follow-up to the Second Vatican Council of 1962, which opened the door to reforms felt across a global church. The most visible: The Catholic Mass began to be celebrated in vernacular languages, rather than just Latin. The Catholic Church also backed off views of other faiths as fundamentally heretical, leading to a new period of interfaith dialogue.

Francis is aiming to create a less top-down church, essentially acknowledging that the faith today is experienced in radically differently ways in different parts of the world. One question is whether it's become too different, with a liberal bent in pockets of Europe where the church is shrinking, and more traditional approaches in many developing countries where the church is still expanding. In Germany, for instance, most bishops have backed same-sex blessings, and Catholic priests are already conducting them. Ugandan bishops, by contrast, have refused to even denounce penal codes that call for the death penalty for homosexuals.

"I think Francis's game plan is to have people come together to pray and try to listen to the spirt as the spirit speaks to us," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and longtime journalist on the Catholic faith. "He wants them to come together to pray and listen to one another and to share where they think the spirit is leading us. Anything can come out of that."

Who is invited to the synod?

Running from Oct. 4-29 inside the Paul VI Hall, the event will have 464 official participants, including two bishops from China nominated by Pope Francis. Of those, 364 - including 54 women - will have voting rights. A 365th vote will come from the pope himself.

More interesting than who is invited is who isn't. Francis - who hand-selected about 50 delegates and had final approval on the full list - appears to have purposely avoided some of the most radical voices in the church on both sides of the spectrum. Many of his top conservative critics are absent, including the five cardinals who released a challenge to the pope Monday. But also absent are the lay German theologians seen as among the faith's most liberal voices.

That doesn't mean the poles of the church won't be represented.

One delegate, for instance, is Cardinal Gerhard Mller, an important figure in the conservative movement who has voiced suspicion of the synod, warning of "a hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ" through liberal reform. Another is an American priest - the Rev. James Martin - who was handpicked by the pope and is known for his ministry to, and defense of, the LBGTQ+ community.

The delegates will be broken up into small groups by language. In what almost seems like corporate-retreat style, they will be aided by guiding facilitators.

How significant is it that the pope is giving the laity voting rights?

In the context of the Catholic church, very. Especially notable, Vatican watchers say, is the inclusion of women in a synodal structure that existed in the past as an absolute patriarchy. For Francis, the decision appears built on the primary theme of his papacy: inclusion. In an interview with La Nacin, from his native Argentina, Francis this year signaled his desire for lay delegates to vote "whether male or female. Everyone, everyone. That word everyone for me is key."

The synod will deal with how to elevate the role of women, both in ministry and church governance. Most of the church's seven synodal regions - North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania - have called for the faith to consider the ordination of female deacons. But that measure is deeply opposed by some conservatives.

Will the synod lead to real reform?

Maybe, maybe not.

Some liberal Catholics are hoping the synodal process will result in Francis translating his more welcoming and inclusive tone into changes in official teaching. They are looking for reforms ranging from priests being able to marry to female deacons to blessings for same-sex couples (such blessings would remain below the Catholic sacrament of marriage).

On Monday, the Vatican released a document that may raise those liberal Catholics' hopes. In a letter, Francis appeared to entertain a more forgiving position on blessing same-sex unions, and opened the door to further study of the subject of female priests.

Meanwhile, some conservative Catholics - particularly the vocal minority who have been critical of Francis - remain fiercely opposed to change. Francis has already ruled against some reforms, like married priests, but no one can predict what he may do after receiving the synod's recommendations next year.

The Vatican has sought to manage expectations. The synod, they say, is a starting point, not an ending, and one designed to have Catholics "learn to talk to each other" and pave the way for future synods on more specific topics.

Asked in an interview with The Washington Post whether that process might take years to finish, Cardinal Michael Czerny, a senior Vatican official, said "no, we're talking about centuries."